How to collect Château d’Yquem wines

Auction Manager Jeremy Lee explains which vintages should be in your wine cellar.

How to collect Château d’Yquem wines

Looking to add something sweet to your wine collection? Our Auction manager and resident wine expert at Whisky.Auction, Jeremy Lee, gives his advice on how to collect Château d’Yquem wines and explains which vintages should be in your wine cellar.

As a budding wine enthusiast and wannabe connoisseur in the mid to late 1990s I filled my head (and if I was lucky, my glass) with a good cross-section of many of the world’s great wines. The fact that so many winemaker names, cuvées, crus and vineyards competed for my attention was all part of the fun and an incentive to delve yet deeper into the subject, cross-referencing the thoughts and biases of critics both on the domestic UK market – for me it was the Masters of Wine Michael Broadbent, Clive Coates and Jancis Robinson – versus those of the goliath of wine writing that was Robert M.Parker Jnr, then at the peak of his powers, from the USA.

Opinions often varied as to favourites, rankings and as to which producer had pulled out the stops in a less-than-perfect vintage – or somehow managed to make an uninspiring wine in a great one – but one of the few good-as-it-gets pillars of brilliance (and regularly perfection) acknowledged by all was Château d’Yquem from Sauternes. On this there seemed to be agreement.

Hooked on the fantasy, I invested my hard-earned Oddbins wages on single bottles of the legendary 1989 and 1990, which years later would indeed rank amongst the greatest wines to ever touch my lips.

So what makes it so special? Yquem is a 113 hectare estate, which dwarfs all the other properties in the appellation in size as well as stature. Situated above the Garonne and Ciron rivers, it is perfectly placed to harvest, as it were, the  autumn mists and afternoon sunshine, which create perfect conditions for Botrytis Cinerea, or noble rot, the ugly-looking fungus that ultimately results in marmalady, custardy, liquid-gold juice.

The vineyards are situated on a high water table, comprising sandy gravels over clay in which are buried no fewer than 10 kilometres of drainage pipes which were laid in the nineteenth century. As wine writer Andrew Jefford bluntly puts it,  ‘Yquem would not be Yquem without these.’

The vineyards are planted with 80% Semillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc, with an average vine age of around 30 years, resulting in around 6000 cases (or around 140,000 bottles) of wine per year. This may sound like a lot, but selection is such that this amounts, famously, to as little as a single glass of wine per vine, or 10 hectolitres per hectare. Château Lafite is around 48 hectolitres per hectare by comparison.

This is only achievable by virtue of a luxury unknown to any other winery on earth, the presence of a team of 150 pickers across a potentially 6 week vintage, with all the associated costs. Up to ten trips, or ‘tries’ through the vineyard are required, though I love the story of the disappointment of visitors to the property in 1990, where the botrytis hit was so thorough (with the highest sugar levels since 1929), that they watched the pickers virtually able to pick entire bunches.

But this is not a regular occurrence, and selection is ruthless at every stage: 70% of the less-than-wonderful 1977 was rejected and declassified (even 60 barrels of that legendary 1990 were rejected, too)

In terms of winemaking, Yquem uses a regime of 100% new oak for 3.5 years, which results in a phenomenon known to our many whisky fans, of a substantial angel’s share of around 20%.

Ownership of Yquem became a thorny subject in the late twentieth century when Alexandre de Lur Saluces, a man responsible for maintaining the stellar quality of the wines since 1968 (and whose family had owned the property since 1785) fought a losing battle with the shareholders of the Château, mostly relatives, to sell to  LVMH in 1999. He nonetheless remained as winemaker, and then later as an ambassador for the property, until 2004. Pierre Lurton, of the Bordeaux winemaking Lurton dynasty now has the reigns of power, and responsibility to deal with the pressures of building on that unfathomable legacy.

Amongst all the plaudits, I rather liked wine author Stephen Brook’s comment in his excellent ‘The Complete Bordeaux’,  that Yquem has been ‘in a class of its own since the late eighteenth century’ with Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte amongst its fans. Me too!

Here are some of the most fabulous historic vintages of the estate: 1921, 1924, 1928, 1929, 1937, 1943, 1945, 1947, 1949, 1955, 1959, 1967, 1971,1975, 1983, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 2001, 2009.*

*though keep in mind that the selection for all the wines produced since the start of the tenure of Alexandre Lur Saluces in 1968 have kept the quality bar unmatched, even in lesser vintages.

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‘A superlative vintage, the best since 1959’. Michael Broadbent MW’s Vintage Wine.

Available in our June 2024 auction.

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‘The 1983 is among the most concentrated wines from this property over the last 20 years, with a staggering display of extract and a mind-boggling amount of glycerin. The vintage commenced early for Yquem, beginning on September 29 and finishing on November 18. Most observers feel the 1983 will mature more slowly than the 1986, and will last for almost 100 years. Given Yquem’s unbelievable aging potential, such comments do not seem far fetched. At present, the 1983 is enormous, with huge, honeyed, pineapple, coconut, and caramel flavors, massive extract, and an unctuous quality barely framed by acidity and new oak. 96/100’ Wine Advocate, 2007

Available in our June 2024 auction. 

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‘An extraordinary effort, Yquem’s 1990 is a rich and fabulously superb, sweet wine. This wine also possesses lots of elegance and finesse. The wine’s medium gold color is accompanied by an exceptionally sweet nose of honeyed tropical fruits, peaches, coconut, and apricots. High quality, subtle toasty oak is well-integrated. The wine is massive on the palate, with layers of intensely ripe botrytis-tinged, exceptionally sweet fruit. Surprisingly well-integrated acidity, and a seamless, full-bodied power and richness have created a wine of remarkable harmony and purity. Certainly it is one of the richest Yquems I have ever tasted, with 50-100 years of potential longevity. An awesome Yquem! Anticipated maturity: 2003-2050+. 99/100’ Robert Parker Jr, tasted 1999

This Chateau D’Yquem 1990 sold at our February 2021 online auction for £320

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‘The 2009 Chateau d’Yquem is one showstopper of a wine and perhaps it is only in a vertical that you realize this is up there among the legendary wines of the past – the 2001 included. It has a wonderful nose that expresses the Semillon component majestically: heady aromas of lemon curd, nectarine, jasmine and honeysuckle that all gain momentum in the glass. The oak is supremely well-integrated. The palate is extremely well-balanced with an unctuous entry. You are immediately knocked sideways by the palpable weight and volume in the mouth, which is almost “”bulbous,”” with layer upon layer of heavily botrytized fruit. It builds to a spicy finish with hints of marzipan and pralines in the background that lend it an untrammeled sense of exoticism. The 2009 is utterly fabulous and decadent, a star that will blaze brightly and undimmed for many years. Drink now-2060+. 100 points’ Neal Martin, Wine Advocate, 2014

This Chateau D’Yquem 2009 sold at our May 2022 online auction for £240.